Asian Syrah & Malbec Masters 2018: the results

In our recent Asian Syrah and Malbec Masters, the results affirmed that Australia continues to be a reliable source for well-crafted, juicy and diverse Shiraz expressions; and that the success of Argentine Malbec is enticing more producers outside of Argentina to try their hand at the variety.

Syrah or Shiraz, a noble red grape that while extremely popular, has never quite captured wine drinkers’ imaginations in the same way as Pinot Noir or  Cabernet Sauvignon has. This curious as this is a grape that can capture both ends of price spectrum. It produces some of the world’s most sought-after and age-worthy collectibles in the Northern Rhône and at the same time is responsible for some of the most accessible, and reliable reds out in the market from brands such as Penfolds to McGuigan and Taylor’s Wine.

In Europe, consumers don’t have to look far to find good Syrah from its spiritual home in the Rhône and the UK has long been a big market for Australian Shiraz. The US has a taste for smart Syrah too but the market snubs the more inexpensive Australian Shiraz that comes to its shores, limiting the grape’s visibility. However, no other country at the moment has so openly embraced this grape variety, particularly from Australia, like China has done in recent years.

China, Australian Shiraz’s biggest wine hope 

Australian Shiraz has simply exploded in Asia in recent years. Of course, there’s the Australian government’s generous financial stimulus package, Australia’s well-perceived country image in China and the two parties’ Free Trade Agreement to help.

Nonetheless, attributing the new Australian Shiraz boom to China is hardly a stretch. As a matter of fact, mainland China, as Wine Australia summarises is “fuelling the growth of Shiraz exports”. Shiraz exports have grown to worth AU$638 million in 2018, and mainland China accounts for just over half of the export value, according to the trade association.

Being the biggest and most valuable export market for Australia, it’s natural that resources and energy from wineries and trade organisations are geared towards this market. This is also why in this year’s Asian Syrah Masters competition, Australia was by far the biggest source for entries and, consequently, the biggest winner on the medal chart.

About the competition

The Asian Syrah/Malbec Masters is a competition created and run by the drinks business Hong Kong, and is an extension of its successful Asian Masters series. The competition is exclusively for single varietal Syrah and Malbec wines and the entries were judged by a selection of experienced tasters including Hong Kong’s top sommeliers, wine buyers and wine educators. The top wines were awarded Gold (93 points or above), Silver (89 points or above) or Bronze (85 points or above) medals according to their result, and those samples that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Master (97 points or above). The Sarah wines were tasted over the course of a single day on October 23 at The Flying Winemaker’s office, and the Malbec Masters was judged separately on November 16. This report features only the medal winners.

Barossa Valley, the sunny wine region in South Australia, often springs to mind when talking about Australian Shiraz. And of right reasons. The region produces luscious, layered Shiraz that can be cellared away for a long period of time.

There are of course lighter and fresher styles in the northern Rhône and parts of Australia as well that “exude elegance with great structure of tannins and fresh acidity,” commented Jennie Mack, founder and managing director of the Asia Wine Service & Education Centre (AWSEC).

But the struggle for producers in Barossa as in most warm regions, is over-ripeness, says Aki Wong of Accolade Wines, since the grape tends to be harvested at higher brix. The key for a great quality Shiraz is a good acidic backbone, well balanced alcohol, plus a rich, velvety palate with fine tannins, says the Master of Wine candidate.

Otherwise, if left on the vines for too long, as Kyle Oosterberg of The Flying Winemaker warns, the grapes will lose their aroma and acidity.

Shiraz icon Henschke’s ‘Kenyeton Euphonium’ 2014, a Shiraz dominant blend with a little Cabernet, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc is a good example of tip-top Barossa Shiraz.

Australian Vintage’s two Shiraz – Tempus Two Pewter Shiraz and McGuigan Farms Barossa Valley 2015 – were another two stellar reds. All three were awarded Gold medals.

Outside of Barossa, Shiraz thrives in McLaren Vale, a coastal region with more maritime influences.

The fast rise of Shiraz here is shown in our results, as two wines from the region came out on top to win the title of Master. Hickinbotham Brooks Road Shiraz delivered complexity, structure, and was considered a favourite by judge James Rowell, Corporate and VIP sales manager at Altaya Wines. And the Shottesbrooke Reserve Series ‘Eliza’ Shiraz also emerged as a top winner for the most coveted Master medal. Only released in top years, the Shiraz is velvety, savoury and textural that ticks everything that we love about Shiraz and costs less than HK$500. The winery’s more approachable Shottesbrooke Estate Series Shiraz also earned a Gold medal in the HK$150-HK$200 price band.

The judges

James Rowell, Corporate and VIP sales manager at Altaya Wines
Aki Wong, Brand Ambassador for Accolade Wines
Jennie Mack, Managing Director of Asia Wine Service & Education Centre (AWSEC)
Tersina Shieh, WSET diploma holder, Wine Educator, Judge and Marketing Specialist

Kyle Oosterberg, Wine Director at The Flying Winemaker
Ric Choi, Sommelier at Bo Innovation
Natalie Wang, Managing Editor, the drinks business Hong Kong
Ringo Lam, Hong Kong-based Sommelier
Yu-Kong Chow, Independent Wine Consultant

Another reason that might have contributed to Shiraz’s commercial success in markets like China and the UK is also due to the fact that the grape can produce good value for money reds, if you compare it with the more delicate Pinot Noir. Shingleback Davey Estate McLaren Vale Shiraz, for instance, took home a Gold even though it commands a price of under HK$150, while most of the Silver medal winning wines were in the lower price category as well.

Another great value Shiraz that emerged from the blind tasting competition was DeBortoli Wines ‘Deen Vat 8 Shiraz’ made in Heathcote, proving once again this is a solid red variety that can guarantee value and quality when done right.

Moving northerly inland to Clare Valley, a star performer was Kilikanoon Estate Proprietor’s Reserve Shiraz 2010 that impressed the judges to win a Gold. But it was Taylors Wines’ ‘St Andrews Shiraz 2015’ that stood head and shoulders above the rest from the tranche to win a Master. A rich red, redolent of black cherry, plum and ripe berries, it is a prime example of oak and fruits in harmony.

Outside of Australia, New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay, Washington State in the US, South Africa’s Swartland and even in Asian countries such as China, Thailand and Japan are garnering interest. A Syrah from Sicily’s Tasca d’dimerita Sallier de Tour La Monaca in the HK$300-500 price band proved a succulent Shiraz with a savoury tinge and minerality that also took home a Gold.

Malbec

The success of Malbec is closely associated with Argentina, which has become a reliable source for juicy, velvety and fruit-froward Malbecs either grown from the main wine region of Mendoza or on higher altitude plots in Salta. Currently, the country is the world’s biggest producer of Malbec, with more than 97,000 acres of vineyards planted with the variety.

The country’s Malbec reputation remained supreme in our competition with Salentein’s Single Vineyard Los Basaltos Malbec earning a Gold medal. The red in the HK$301-HK$400 price band was praised by judge Yu-Kong Chow, an independent wine consultant, as “divine”. “The intense and aroma of blackberries is complemented with a defined expression of fruit, rich silky tannins, a touch of spice and a great balance with freshness,” he commented, adding the minerality in the red is another standout quality.

Similar to Syrah, Malbec is another red grape that can produce quality wines at relatively lower prices, lending an economic edge to its popularity.

The commercial success of Argentine Malbec has also spurred its neighbour Chile to plant the variety in increasing quantities, often blended together with Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties to make more full-bodied and tannic expressions.

One example is Chile’s Malbec specialist Viu Manet. Its ‘Viu 1’ 2010 for instance is made from Malbec grown in the winery’s San Carlos vineyard in the Colchagua Valley on sandy-clay soil, giving the wine a firm structure, sturdy body and inky colour. Representing a more premium expression in the HK$1,000 and above category, this dense red full of ripe fruit characters and sweet spices was awarded a Gold. 

Another country that has received the gospel of Malbec is Australia, particularly in Langhorne Creek and Clare Valley. Taylors Family Wines ‘Taylor Made Malbec’, is a solid Malbec that sells only between HK$151 and HK$200 and likewise won a Gold medal.

There are also no shortage of winners of Silver medals in both Syrah and Malbec tastings. You can scroll through the following few pages to see all the results. 

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